U.S. Navy Offshore Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands March 26, 1945

Late in 1944 Vice Admiral Taki­jirō Ōnishi, recently appointed com­man­der of the First Air Fleet in Japa­nese-held Manila, the Philip­pine’s capital, cham­pioned a special attack force (tokubetsu kogeki tai, abbre­vi­ated as tokkotai) that would inflict maxi­mum damage on Allied naval vessels squeezing the island empire: Japan’s food supply and fuel reserves were scraping the bottom, which is also where her once-vaunted fleet lay. A chief tactic in Ōnishi’s stra­tegy involved loading high explo­sives onto land-based air­craft that would be flown by youth­ful, mostly inex­peri­enced naval avi­a­tors who repu­tably gloried in self-sacri­fice as they crashed their planes into Allied ships to sink or crip­ple them and kill as many sail­ors and Marines as pos­sible. These one-way tok­kotai pilots had been named after a “Divine Wind,” a kami­kaze, that destroyed a Mon­gol inva­sion fleet cen­turies ear­lier, saving Japan from conquest. Ōnishi hoped to repeat his ancestors’ fate by using these one-way avia­tors in what were euphemistically called “special attack formations.”

On this date, March 26, 1945, the first kami­kazes par­tici­pated in the Oki­na­wa cam­paign, the last major action of the Pacific War. In doing so they tipped the Allies off that their Oper­a­tion Ice­berg, the April 1 amphi­bious inva­sion of Oki­na­wa, 340 miles from the Japa­nese home­land and its last line of defense, would face seri­ous and relent­less air­borne opposi­tion. The Allies did their best to put into place ship­board anti­air­craft defenses, dis­patch destroyer and/or destroyer escort radar pickets on the fleet’s peri­meter, and form radar-directed com­bat air pa­trols. Still swarms of kami­kaze planes ex­tracted a heavy toll in April. A day before the in­va­sion launch date one death diver crashed his plane into the USS Indi­an­ap­olis, the flag­ship of Adm. Ray­mond Spru­ance, who was the over­all Allied naval com­mander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and the newly formed British Pacific Fleet.

On April 6–7 a typhoon of more than 700 Japa­nese air­craft, fighter planes, and con­ven­tional bombers assaulted the Allied fleet and over­whelmed its defenses. It was 19 hours in kami­kaze hell. The tally of enemy air­craft shot down during this period was reckoned at 304 by Amer­i­can sources. Japa­nese sources con­cede that none of the fighter planes returned home, while admitting that con­ven­tional bomber losses are unknown. In all, 1,465 large-scale kami­kaze attacks launched from Kyūshū, the southern­most Japa­nese Home Island, were made off Oki­na­wa between March and June 1945. Roughly one in five or one in seven (sources vary) kami­kaze pilots found their target and their death (about 3,800 pilots). Of the 1,400 Allied ships and ves­sels that took part in the Oki­na­wa cam­paign (April 1 to June 21, 1945), 34 (or 36) were sunk (6 war­ships in the hellish hours of April 6–7), chiefly destroyers; 368 ves­sels were damaged, including 8 carriers. More than 400 fleet air­craft were lost. Over 4,900 or likely as many as 7,000 U.S. and Allied sail­ors were killed or went missing in action, with an addi­tional 4,824 injured. Nearly one in five U.S. Navy casual­ties suffered during the war came off the coast of Oki­nawa. This was by far the heavi­est loss incurred in any naval cam­paign in the war. Over­all, how­ever, the losses kami­kaze pilots inflicted on the Allied fleet off Oki­nawa were insuf­ficient to turn the tide of war in Japan’s favor, although they did raise the price of America’s eventual victory.

Japanese Kamikaze Pilots—Ten-Month Scourge of the U.S. Fleet

Youthful Japanese kamikaze pilots receive ordersJapanese kamikaze pilots: Five young airmen pose bravely before one-way mission

Left: A Japanese Navy kami­kaze pilot in the rank of a lieu­ten­ant receives sortie orders. Three-quarters of the 4,000 Japa­nese pilots who died in the last 18 months of the war, many in kami­kaze missions, were “boy pilots,” teen­agers barely out of school. Another thou­sand were uni­ver­sity draftees. Most Japa­nese, espe­cially the well-educated student soldiers and avia­tors, knew well before 1944 that Japan was going to lose the war. The cruel and futile kami­kaze oper­a­tion was the last desperate hur­rah for Japan’s mili­tary leaders and their emperor Hirohito. Unlike modern-day suicide bombers of the al Qaeda or ISIS sort who make no dis­tinc­tion between com­bat­ants and civil­ians when selecting their victims, kami­kaze pilots only attacked mili­tary targets. The same goes for one-man sub­marines, manned solid-fuel rocket bombs called Ohka (“Cherry Blossom”), and land-based explo­sive motor boats, which were less well-known kamikaze missions.

Right: Seventeen-year-old Cpl. Yukio Araki, holding a puppy, with four other pilots of the 72nd Shinbu Squadron based on the home island of Kyūshū. Araki died the following day, May 26, 1945, in a lethal attack on ships near Oki­nawa. Between April 6 and June 22, Kyūshū launched 1,465 kami­kaze air­craft in large-scale attacks and 185 indi­vid­ual kami­kaze sorties. From a Japa­nese per­spec­tive it is worth pointing out that the typ­i­cal Japa­nese person then and now rejects the term “sui­cide attack” when speaking of kami­kaze. The kami­kaze pilot did not begin his one-way mission with the inten­tion of commit­ting sui­cide. He consid­ered him­self a pilot-guided lethal bomb that would cripple or destroy a certain part of the enemy fleet for his emperor and coun­try simi­lar to the fate that befell the Mon­gol inva­sion fleet cen­turies ear­lier. His was a glorious act, while suicide may or may not be.

Japanese kamikaze pilots: Schoolgirls bid farewell to pilotJapanese kamikaze pilots: Aircraft carrier USS "Bunker Hill" billowing fire from deck, May 11, 1945

Left: Kamikaze flights found strong appeal in a nation with a long tradi­tion of ritual sui­cide (seppuku or harakiri). Two or three pilots stepped forward for every avail­able kami­kaze plane, some­times filling out their appli­ca­tions in blood. High school girls idolized the doomed heroes, who could not pos­sibly change the course of the war. What they could do, and indeed did, was make the even­tual Allied victory more costly than other­wise. In this photo they wave fare­well with cherry blossom branches to 2nd Lt. Toshio Ana­zawa of Army Special Attack Unit (20th Shinbu Squad­ron). Ana­zawa’s single-engine land-based air­craft, a Naka­jima Ki‑43 IIIa Army Type 1 fighter carrying a 550 lb bomb, departed Kyūshū’s Chiran airbase at Kago­shima, for Okinawa on April 12, 1945.

Right: USS Bunker Hill was turned into a blazing junkyard on May 11, 1945, by 22-year-old kami­kaze pilot Ensign Kiyoshi Ogawa and another air­man 30 seconds apart. From a carrier crew of 2,600, 389 per­sonnel were killed or went missing and 264 were wounded when planes on the flight and hangar decks caught fire and blew up. Although kami­kaze attacks on the heavy cruiser Indi­an­apolis and the carrier Bunker Hill are relatively well-known, toward the end of the naval battle off Oki­nawa, the radar picket ships on the edge of the fleet became the prime kami­kaze targets. Of the 206 ships serving radar picket duty, 29 per­cent were sunk or damaged in Japa­nese air attacks, making theirs the most hazardous but least known naval surface duty of the war.

Japanese kamikaze pilots: USS "Witter" hit by a kami­kaze, June 6, 1945Japanese kamikaze pilots: USS "Missouri" hit off Okinawa, April 11, 1945

Left: The destroyer escort USS Witter, shown damaged in port, was hit at the water­line while on anti­sub­marine patrol by a kami­kaze Aichi D3A Type 99 carrier bomber on June 6, 1945, losing six crew­men. Another six were wounded. (The Aichi D3A Type 99 sank more Allied war­ships than any other Axis air­craft.) The Witter was sea­worthy enough to make it back to the Phila­del­phia Navy Yard. How­ever, owing to exten­sive damage and an excess of ships of her type, she was decom­missioned at the end of October and sold for scrap the next year.

Right: Sailors at their starboard aft battle stations aboard the battle­ship USS Missouri braced them­selves for impact moments before a kami­kaze, keeping low above the water, slammed into the ship at Okinawa, April 11, 1945. The “Mighty Mo,” nearly inde­struc­tible, sus­tained damage and casual­ties, yet survived to host the Japa­nese sur­render cere­monies in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.

Allied Sea Power Threatened by New Military Tactic at Okinawa: Japanese Kamikaze Pilots